Bulbs and humans: Rising above the squirrel mentality

Contributed photoTo avoid a haphazard ‘squirrel mentality’ when planting bulbs, horticulturalist David Burdick recommends a deliberate, design-centered approach.

When I spoke to David Burdick several weeks ago, he was in the trenches — literally. That is, he was just back from his growing field in Dalton, Mass. and the work of digging colchicum bulbs — fall-blooming treasures — for shipment to customers of his company Daffodils and More. He was glad to take time out, though, to discuss his Sept. 20 class being held on-site at Berkshire Botanical Garden, “Bulbs and Humans: Rising Above the Squirrel Mentality.”

I had to know what the “squirrel mentality” was and received from David a fair description of my own condition. Like most other garden enthusiasts, I admire hardy bulbs when they bloom in spring, and I make mental notes about which ones I should purchase in the fall. Maybe I even write them down and put the list in a safe place. In any case, I soon forget what I wanted to buy and where I put that list. I’m forced to fall back on looking at pictures in the catalogs that arrive in summertime and making up an order on the basis of those. But I forget where I store the catalogs, and when the orders in due course arrive, I haven’t a clue as to how the bulbs in their little sacks are going to turn out next spring.

That’s when I resort to truly squirrel-like behavior, scampering around the yard looking for soft spots in flower beds where I can tuck in the bulbs a few at a time. The results are, as David Burdick pointed out, less than impressive.

David espouses a more methodical and effective approach. Spring to late spring is a time for observing not only what hardy bulbs please you with their blossoms, but also how they can function effectively as a part of a garden design. Burdick cites as an example a willow-leaved magnolia with an underplanting of chionodoxa — commonly known as Glory of the Snow — bulbs that flourished at Berkshire Botanical Garden when Burdick was the horticulturist there years ago. The magnolia produced a cloud of white blossoms just when the chionodoxa created a pool of blue flowers underneath. That combination was greater than the sum of the parts.

This situation also suited the bulbs’ cultural needs: chionodoxas need sun when they are in active growth, and they get that before the magnolia leafs out. But the thick foliage of the magnolia, once it unfurls, shades the bulbs when they have gone dormant later in the spring and the summer, creating the cool, dry habitat they need then.

Burdick also describes a cornelian cherry — actually a type of Old World dogwood known botanically as Cornus mas — nearby that fortunate magnolia as an opportunity. It, too, blooms at the same time as the chionodoxas. Imagine, he suggests, the yellow blossoms of the cornelian cherry juxtaposed to the chionodoxas’ blue.

Plant in substantial numbers, adds Burdick, if you want to have an impact. Half a dozen bulbs dotted here and there are easily overlooked. No one can miss, though, a hundred or two hundred bulbs of a single kind strategically placed. That, says, Burdick, is “a real garden moment.”

When making such purchases, Burdick adds, shop wisely. Going local, and buying bulbs at a garden center or other local outlet, has the advantage that you can check the merchandise before you purchase it. Check the bottom of the bulb first. Look at the “basal plate,” the spot where the roots will emerge. You should see a circle of white tissue on most kinds of bulbs. A dark color at this spot suggests that the bulb is afflicted with basal rot disease and is a bad buy. After checking the bottom, Burdick recommends, check the upper tip of the bulb; it should be hard and crisp. Then squeeze the bulb at the center; that, too, should be firm, not soft.

There are advantages to ordering from a catalog, however. In them, you’ll find a greater selection of bulb types and sometimes bargain prices, especially if you are ordering in bulk. However, you should check the bulbs’ health as soon as they arrive. Do not hesitate, Burdick adds, to return to the vendor any that do not fit the criteria outlined above.

For more information about selecting and purchasing bulbs, or for treatment of your squirrel mentality, consider joining David Burdick and his class at Berkshire Botanical Garden from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sept. 20. Advance registration at berkshirebotanical.org is required; click on “program calendar” to find the class description and registration link.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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